Do you know the sort of woman who never gets sick, never complains, always seems so effortlessly put together? Ann Kron is not one of those women. Sunk in a La-Z-Boy, she suffers aches and pains and insomnia. Her housedress is shapeless; her sweater is plum-colored, or must have been, once. “Do you follow the ice-skating?” she asks a visitor. “I just love it.”
As dramatized by her daughter, the downtown writer-performer Lisa Kron, Ann seems the embodiment of a figure that tony Manhattan has been conditioned to dismiss: a woman who won’t extract herself from bad health and worse taste. It’s partly to answer such preconceptions that Kron has written Well, a weird, warm, and funny pseudo-autobiography that has just moved uptown to the Longacre.
I have no idea how it made such a move. Two commodities seem like prerequisites for Broadway success this season—movie stars and Britons—but Well has neither. Even more improbably, it’s a comedy that kicks around some pretty serious ideas. Lisa begins by facing the audience, wearing understated black and a slightly professorial smile. The play, she explains, note card in hand, is “a multicharacter theatrical exploration of health and illness both in an individual and in a community.” She envisions a high-minded look at sickness and getting better, important subjects for our health-obsessed, drug-dependent age. “Do you want to see the grant proposal?” she offers.
It may sound pretty dry, but much of the show’s considerable comedy lies in watching Kron’s attempts at seriousness backfire. With a versatile supporting cast, she reenacts scenes from her ailing childhood. She grew up suffering “allergies,” a catchall condition that sounds awfully psychosomatic and runs in the family. Lisa got better; her mother did not. To illustrate the point, her mom (played by Jayne Houdyshell) has been invited to sit onstage, in a replica of the family living room. “Would anybody like something to drink?” she asks the crowd.
Though Ann doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a civil-rights pioneer, with her slippers and Michigan drawl, Lisa makes a pretty convincing case that she is. Despite her ailments, Ann found the energy to work for the racial integration of their neighborhood in Lansing. How could a woman heal a community, Lisa wants to know, but not heal herself? Firmly but politely, Ann begins interrupting her daughter to offer her own views on the subject, and Well goes very charmingly to pieces.
Kron, cleverly, has programmed her play to self-destruct. Actors drop character, unwanted people arrive, bad things happen to the scenery. Director Leigh Silverman handles these metatheatrics deftly enough, but Kron lacks Charlie Kaufman’s talent for making this kind of strangeness sing. Still, she finds graceful ways to make wellness echo other issues, such as race. Healthy people “imagine that sick people have all the resources they do and they’re just not trying hard enough—but we don’t,” says one of Lisa’s fellow sufferers. As delivered here by the excellent Saidah Arrika Ekulona, the speech registers as a cogent plea for understanding: “I want you to feel like this for just one day—then you tell me how to get better.”
As you might be gathering, Well is not one of those Shavian comedies that sends you screaming into the night, fundamental beliefs in ruins. Kron offers plenty to think about but little with which to disagree. Yes, it is certainly better to integrate what is different or painful into our lives than to live in silos of our own invention. What gives this unremarkable message its punch, though, is the personal way Kron applies it. All the complicated apparatus seems, in the end, like a grand effort by Lisa to put off dealing with her mother. Well is not least a play about all the ways we are, and aren’t, our parents.
Don’t worry—Kron makes her point without resorting to huggy histrionics. They’re rendered unnecessary by Houdyshell’s warm, glowing performance as Ann. She conveys the sincere pain of Ann’s illness while revealing her great stores of good sense and strength. (“Scoot!” she says to a girl who’s bullying Lisa—and the girl does.) It’s not going too far to say that Kron and Houdyshell make Ann Kron a modest kind of hero, a woman you feel lucky to have met and would like to see again. “I’m not too good in the mornings,” she says, “but I am up all night.”